Tulsa race massacre reparations would begin the healing

Tulsa Aftermath ariel view
Tulsa Aftermath, June 1, 1921

For a century, Mother Fletcher has been seeking reparations

When HBO’s 2019 Watchmen television series opened with the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma race massacre, and HBO’s 2020 Lovecraft Country tv series closed with scenes from the riots, most Americans—black and white—had never heard of the event—even Tulsans.

On May 19, the 107-year-old survivor, Viola (“Mother”) Fletcher, read her emotional written testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee about her massacre experience to help push a bill for reparations. Mother Fletcher was accompanied by two more survivors—her 100-year-old brother, Hughes Vann Ellis, and 106-year-old survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle.

“Today, I am in Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life. I am here seeking justice. I am here asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921.”

The struggle for Black Tulsan survivors and their descendants to receive reparations has been a century-old controversy, one that is a pox on this country’s unwillingness to redress the human rights violation and the generational loss of accumulated wealth.

The Greenwood section of Tulsa was known as “Black Wall Street.” It was built on Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of self-reliance, economic empowerment, and black entrepreneurship. The flourishing hub was one of the major economic engines in the state. It was one of the most affluent black communities in the country. Residing in Jim Crow’s America, Black Tulsans created their businesses and services, including grocers, banks, libraries, theaters, churches, barber and beauty shops, retail stores, to name a few.

However, the financial and property loss created by the Tulsa race massacre was staggering: at least 191 businesses, 1,256 houses, several churches, a junior high school, the only black hospital, and about 10,000 homeless people and approximately 6,000 of them placed in internment camps throughout the city. The property damage was more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property. In 2020 dollars, it would be equivalent to $32.65 million. Had the Tulsa race massacre not happened the Greenwood section might mirror Atlanta today. It would have brought generations of wealth that would create a middle-class and up-and-coming black professional community clamoring to be there.

Sadly, today, the reality for Black Tulsans is grim. Their lives are constantly besieged with nonstop policing, poverty, and prison.

For example, according to the 2020 Census, Blacks comprise 15.6 percent of the population, and 33.5 percent live below the poverty line. The median household income for blacks is $28,399 compared to $51,053 in white households in Tulsa. Blacks adults are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites, and black juveniles (ages 0-17), are more than three times as likely to be arrested than white juveniles 7.1

Whereas black homeownership was once common before the Tulsa race massacre, it’s out of reach today for most. Black Tulsans’ homeownership is 39 percent compared to 71 percent for white Tulsans.

The educational gap is abysmal. The Black-white achievement gap in education for Black Tulsans goes hand-in-hand with the social and racial disparities black students face today across the country. School funding, substandard curriculums, low test scores, large class size, and harsh disciplinary policies (school to prison pipeline), to name a few.

Mother Fletcher’s education and her life were interrupted, and she never recovered.

“When my family was forced to leave Tulsa, I lost my chance at an education. I never finished school past the fourth grade. I have never made much money. My country, state, and city took a lot from me. Despite this, I spent time supporting the war effort in the shipyards of California. But for most of my life, I was a domestic worker serving white families. I never made much money,” Fletcher testified. “To this day, I can barely afford my everyday needs. All the while, the City of Tulsa has unjustly used the names and stories of victims like me to enrich itself and its White allies through the $30 million raised by the Tulsa Centennial Commission while I continue to live; in poverty.”

For a century, Mother Fletcher has been seeking reparations. Just this century alone, bills have been presented to Congress requesting reparations to survivors and descendants of the victims. In 2001, the “1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act” was signed into law but failed to deliver reparations. In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear a reparations-case appeal.

In 2007, Congressman John Conyers introduced the “Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2007” for reparations. In 2012, Conyers reintroduced the “John Hope Franklin Tulsa-Greenwood Race Riot Claims Accountability Act of 2012” for reparations. Last year, Human Rights Watch released a report titled “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” asking for reparations. And, this year in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the event, the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission raised $30 million for a new museum, but not a cent to repay survivors and their descendants.

Requests for restitution continue to fall on deaf ears. Long after Mother Fletcher and the remaining survivors are gone, America’s inability to redress this wrong impedes its own healing.